How to be coached

When we learn how to coach we learn a new way of relating to and supporting someone in the achievement of their goals. But as I’ve engaged in coaching conversations and formal coaching sessions I’ve noticed that the coachee also has to learn a new way to relate to a new form of support. This is my initial attempted to write a primer on the role of the coachee.

The primary job of a coach is to help the coachee think, plan and act. This primer will deal with these areas in order.


When we are coached it’s not surprising that we begin by relating to our coach as an authority figure. In life we are used to instructors, doctors, supervisors and mentors giving advice and guidance on various topics. So we might begin with the model in our minds that imagines the coach as a machine for turning our thoughts into advice. We provide input, the coach provides the output. This isn’t how coaching works.

Helping someone to think and providing someone with an answer are antithetical. Someone who expects someone else to figure something out for them will think less, to start with, and any answer that a third party can provide will be drenched in said person’s own biases, not built from scratch for your needs. A good coach only provides advice when he or she feels able to add something simple and open to discussion. A coach never expects to solve your problem with some gilded wisdom.

And because your coach will not diagnose you like a doctor proscribe you treatment, because your coach will not listen, think and then spit out a solution based on your input, you can worry a little less about being correct and unambiguous in your answers. That is to say, there’s not really a correct or incorrect answer to most coaching questions. Coaching questions seek a useful answer!

In practice that means if your coach asks you what you think is causing you stress at work, for instance, it’s perfectly OK to say you don’t know. To offer an unambiguous answer for the sake of appearing certain and correct is far less useful. It’s also OK to change your mind or to pause for as long as you like to ponder the question. You are not being assessed!

If the answers to your questions are not to help the coach figure out a solution, what exactly is the point? Simply, your coach wants to help you to think. He or she will do this by listening, asking questions and challenging you when necessary. The solutions will always come from you. Your coach is there to help you find them within yourself.

If this sounds simple, you’re right. In essence the job of a coach is to be a great listener and a great question asker. In practice this isn’t nearly as simple as it sounds. But that’s not for you to worry about.


Humans are, generally, poor planners. This isn’t to say we can’t learn to plan better but when the item in question is important to us, something to which we have attached emotional weight, personal pride, hope and dreams, planning isn’t a simple act of placing items in some sort of flow. Planning becomes emotionally charged and we make errors of judgment; taking on too much, applying magical or overoptimistic thinking, being too cautious for fear of failure, or failing to consider our human needs, acting as if we can be driven like a machine and placing too much pressure on willpower alone.

Your coach’s second job is to support you in planning your actions. This is also a listening and questioning task but here your coach isn’t trying to help you think through your goals but to think practically about how you will work towards them

It’s tricky, as a coach, to know exactly how to input in this section. So it’s useful if you keep in mind that if your coach presses you to explain a course of action it isn’t because he or she disapproves. Once again, you are not being assessed. Your coach will press you to deepen your thinking and question your assumptions because an unrealistic plan has failed before it has begun.

Then, when you think your plan is ready, your coach will push you to break it down even more, think it through and consider all the ways in which things could conspire against you. This is necessary not because your coach doesn’t believe in you (a coach who loses faith in his or her coachee must immediately withdraw from the relationship) but because the enthusiasm and self belief necessary to plan a big life change may well render the coachee blind to the pitfalls.

By helping you to anticipate problems your coach lets you plan for them, be aware of them and build them in to your considerations. This should increase your confidence and reduce the chances of a morale sapping error.


When the thinking and planning are done it’s time to do. In this phase your coach acts as a mirror, reflecting your longer term desires and connecting you to your state of mind when you created your plan.

Psychologists refer to two special states of mind; the cool state is you sitting back, reflecting calmly on the world and making plans based on rational thinking and clear self knowledge. The hot state is you in the moment, surrounded by distraction, temptation and confusion. Hungry, tired, harassed. In this state we frequently make perfectly reasonable choices based not on our long term goals but on relieving immediate pain.

Self discipline is a wonderful thing but even the most disciplined of us finds it hard to remember when he’s cold and tired, hungry and on the late train home, why exactly not eating a big, satisfying bag of chips is such an important thing.

Now, this is not to say that your coach will always be on hand with the egg salad and green tea whenever you need it, but he or she will certainly be there to remind you, when will power is low, why you made the choices you made. And, when slips happens as they always do, your coach will help you to remain realistic in your emotional responses, potentially reframing thought processes that might otherwise derail you.

For instance, someone seeking to find a new job might have planned to attend two networking events during a single week but, when the moment came, felt unable to attend. It’s not unusual for a person to feel guilt, shame, a sense of failure and powerlessness after such events. Your coach will help you see these events for what they are: useful information. Finding out that what seemed achievable wasn’t isn’t evidence that you are in some way innately flawed, it shows us that there is some underlying challenge that so far we have failed to recognise.

So, as a coachee during the acting phase, what do you need to keep in mind?

You are accountable only to you, your coach isn’t a supervisor or teacher who you can let down. Your coach will support you whatever you do
Be honest about how you feel about your plan and how you feel about executing it. If something is bothering you then say so, that uneasy feeling might be a useful clue
It is always OK to change your mind – a plan is a tool to guide you, not a perfect path from which you mustn’t deviate. If in the process of acting on your plan you learn something that makes you want to alter course, say so
This has been a very brief primer on what it means to be coached. It does not represent anything near to a complete guide to the role of the coachee. As time passes I will add to this document but for now remember that you are the boss. Your needs, your feelings, your desires and fears, are, in the context of the coaching relationship, all good. There is no shame, no guilt and no sense of obligation to the coach. You are accountable to you. Your coach is here to help you surpass not his or her expectations but your own.


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